Alan Grostephan’s riveting first novel, “Bogotá,” follows the lives of a rural panguero, or boatman, and his family as they flee the violence of the Colombian countryside for the scarcely less violent slums of the city of Bogotá.

The book opens as Wilfredo, the boatman, is forced to ferry right-wing paramilitaries throughout a harrowing night in which they kidnap, brutally murder and then dismember with a chainsaw three teenage boys suspected of being guerrillas. Wilfredo and his family are trapped in the chaos of recent Colombian history, where the government, narcotics traffickers, paramilitaries the left-wing guerrillas battle for supremacy. It’s impossible for the poor to remain uninvolved, and Wilfredo’s family is drawn into an endless nightmare where there are no winners, only temporary survivors.

Wilfredo loves his boat and his river, but his complicity in the murders puts his life at risk, and so he and his family flee to the slums of Bogotá, where poverty and violence reign: running water is an occasional thing and cause for celebration; education is a sought-after commodity disrupted by crime, corruption, poverty and teenage pregnancy; and paramilitary “cleanings” regularly leave the bodies of young men on the doorsteps of their families.

In this world, the family quickly dissolves. Wilfredo, defeated by the exhausting work of unloading trucks in a local market, hits the road in search of some way to make a living that will allow him to return to his family, a hoped-for reunion that is again and again put off for a better day. In Wilfredo’s travails, the reader is reminded of the Third World labor necessary to deliver fresh roses to the prosperous cities of North America and Europe. But if the novel has a main character, it is Wilfredo’s youngest son, Hernán, who is drawn into a life of petty crime that makes him a target of the paramilitaries even as he struggles to gain entrance to the university and awaits the birth of a child.

Grostephan’s prose fits his subject; his sentences are as busy as a Third World market. Images crowd and clash, the narrative jumps and clatters, and the reader is given no more rest than Wilfredo’s besieged family. The novel is loosely plotted, more of a brutal picaresque than a traditional drama. Grostephan’s writing argues that conventional plot is a luxury of the wealthy First World: Wilfredo and his family have no pretense of control over lives that are as impermanent as the sandbars in the river he once navigated; they are at the mercy of the shifting currents of crime, drugs, poverty and civil war.


John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” won the 2011 Minnesota Book Award for the novel and short story. He lives in St. Paul.